28 October 2021
700 years after the death of the Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (b. c. 1265, d. 1321), the exhibition Inferno has opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Inspired by the infernal visions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it explores the iconography of Hell, tracing its development and representation from the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance, all the way up to the modern era. In the process, it brings together some 235 works of art from over 80 museums and public and private collections across Europe. The British Library is delighted to be lending one of its most precious manuscripts, the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV), to the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum from 15 October 2021 to 9 January 2022.
The Winchester Psalter appears in the first section of the exhibition, which explains the history of infernal iconography and highlights Dante’s interpretation of a centuries-old religious tradition in his writing. Made in the mid-12th-century, the manuscript is a bilingual copy of the Book of Psalms, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the principal language of the aristocracy in England after the Norman Conquest. The book was probably commissioned by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (b. c. 1096, d. 1171), younger brother to the English King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), and then housed at Winchester’s Old Minster.
The Psalter is notable for its extensive illustrative programme, with 39 pages of narrative illustrations of subjects from the Old and New Testaments prefacing the Psalms. They include scenes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the Life of the Virgin Mary, and the Life of Christ. The final image in this narrative sequence is a striking representation of the Last Judgement.
The Last Judgement scene is principally designed around an iconography known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’, the representation of the entrance to Hell as the mouth of a beast that swallows demons and the souls of the damned alike. The iconography developed towards the end of the 11th century in England and soon became a popular motif in art and literature across medieval Europe. It frequently appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, where it featured in depictions of the Fall of the Angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement.
The Winchester Psalter’s depiction of the hell-mouth is one of the most elaborate to survive from this period. It shows two gigantic creatures, with hairy bodies and bloodshot eyes, whose mouths meet to form a single gaping maw at the centre of the page. Within the dark abyss of the maw, we see horned devils and demons carrying whips, flails, and pitchforks, corralling a shifting mass of naked sinners. The crowd includes figures from all parts of medieval society, from kings and queens in golden crowns, to monks with tonsured heads, to lay people.
Overlooking the hell-mouth in the centre, a pair of dragonheads emerge from the folds in each creature’s neck, their long fangs forming the hinges of the red gates of Hell, which an archangel then locks with a large key. Meanwhile, a caption at the top of the page, written in Anglo-Norman French, states, ‘Ici est enfers et li angels ki enferme les porteis’ (Here is Hell and the angel who closes the doors).
You can visit Inferno and see the Winchester Psalter and its Last Judgement scene in person at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 15th October 2021 to 9 January 2022. The exhibition catalogue Inferno is edited by Jean Clair and published by Electa.
19 October 2021
Long celebrated for its superb illuminations, the Saluces Hours (Add MS 27697) has been described by the art historian John Plummer as ‘one of the finest and most inventive manuscripts illuminated during the 15th century’. Yet it was only in 1989 that the art historian François Avril identified most of its miniatures as the work of Antoine de Lonhy, a prolific, multifaceted and well-travelled artist of the 15th century.
Antoine de Lonhy is the subject of a new exhibition, Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy (The European Renaissance of Antoine De Lonhy), which opened at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin on 7 October 2021, and will run until 9 January 2022. The Saluces Hours is a focal point of the exhibition, appearing in the first room together with a painting of Lonhy in the collection of the Palazzo Madama. Other works by Lonhy and his contemporaries include manuscripts, panel paintings, stained glass, sculptures and textiles. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to view other miniatures from the manuscript shown digitally beside it.
The Saluces Hours is a manuscript with a complicated genesis. It was produced in Savoy, which in the 15th century was in independent duchy, and today comprises an area of southeast France and northwest Italy. The manuscript was originally begun around the 1440s, several decades before Lonhy’s involvement in the project. In this first stage, the text was probably completed and the process of illuminating the book begun. Some of the pictures and borders from this phase are attributed to Peronet Lamy (d. before 1453), an artist who worked for the court of Savoy from around 1432 to 1443, whose work is particularly apparent in the miniature of St John the Evangelist (f. 13r).
Another contemporary artist, known as the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy (after Paris, BnF, MS Lat. 9473) also contributed eight miniatures, as well as the historiated initials which accompany them. He might have done this concurrently with the original campaign of work, or perhaps he took over when Peronet Lamy stopped working on the book.
But for some reason, the project stalled and for over a decade the beautiful book was left unfinished. Then in around 1460-1470, Antoine de Lonhy took it up and completed it. As well as adding lots of new pictures, he also retouched the earlier artworks to increase the impression of stylistic coherence, and in some cases he may have painted on underdrawings made by the previous artists.
Although the book was originally intended for a male owner, as suggested by the inclusion of prayers which are grammatically phrased for the use of a man, Lonhy seems to have completed the new work for a woman. He painted her in an owner portrait, kneeling before the Virgin and Child and followed by two Franciscan saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua. She is gorgeously dressed in a fur-trimmed dress, a weighty gold collar, and a towering conical hat (know as a hennin).
Yet the identity of this glamorous owner has proved puzzling. The borders of the manuscript regularly feature the coat of arms of the Saluces family of Piedmont (argent a chief azure), as well as in two places the coat of arms of the d'Urfé family (vair a chief gules). Based on this heraldic evidence, it used to be thought that the owner was Aimée (or Amadée) de Saluces (b. 1420, d. 1473), daughter of Mainfroy de Saluces of Piedmont. Aimée married Guillaume-Armand de Polignac around 1441, and their daughter Catherine married Pierre d'Urfé in 1489.
However, scholars no longer agree with this identification because the manuscript does not contain the Polignac arms, despite dating stylistically from the period after Aimée’s marriage. Further, the coats of arms appear to be later additions to the manuscript, and probably do not refer to the woman who Lonhy worked for at all. It is more likely that both the original and later patrons of the Book of Hours, with its close similarities to the Hours of Louis of Savoy, were members of Savoy's Ducal family. It is now thought that the woman is possibly Yolande of France (b. 1434, d. 1478), wife of Duke Amadeus IX of Savoy.
We know more about the artist, Antoine de Lonhy, thanks to the work of art historians who have meticulously identified his works and reconstructed his career, now further elucidated in the exhibition and exhibition catalogue. Apparently French by birth, he seems to have started his career in the Duchy of Burgundy in the 1440s. By the 1450s he was documented working in Toulouse, and in 1460-62 he was working in Barcelona. He seems to have settled in Piedmont around 1462, and he worked on commissions in Savoy and Piedmont in around 1470-90. Dozens of his attributed artworks survive in a surprisingly wide variety of media, including panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass.
Despite his wide-ranging travels, Antoine de Lonhy’s style is closely linked to the northern European Gothic art in which he was trained. The ornamental architecture in his pictures is always Gothic rather than Classical, although Classical architecture was flourishing in Italy at the time. His pictures show a depth of space and an interest in sweeping landscapes that suggests he was well versed in the work of great Flemish artists of the first half of the 15th century such as Jan Van Eyck and Roger Van der Weyden. His figures are softly modelled with sensitive faces, draperies that fall into elaborate deep folds, and sometimes strikingly lifelike anatomy, as illustrated in the picture of the naked Adam and Eve in the Saluces Hours.
To discover more about Antoine de Lonhy and see a great range of his works, visit the exhibition Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin, from 7 October, 2021 to 9 January, 2022.
You can read more about the subject in exhibition catalogue, Il Rinascimento europeo di Antoine De Lonhy, ed. by Simone Baiocco e Vittorio Natale (Genova: SAGEP, 2021), and you can find further bibliography in our catalogue record. You can also view the Saluces Hours online on our Digitised Manuscripts website.
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27 September 2021
The poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the work of Rabanus Maurus (b. 780/781, d. 856), one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the Carolingian age. Rabanus Maurus was in charge of the imperial abbey school of Fulda in central Germany, and he was later archbishop of Mainz. While in Fulda, he composed this poem which comprises a set of verses where the words both embody and celebrate the cross, drawing on an Antique tradition of arranging words and phrases within figures.
A number of copies of this work survive, including one made in the Premonstratensian Abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in around the 1170s, now in the Harley collection in the British Library (Harley MS 3045). In all but one copy, the figured poem or carmina figurata is on the left, with an explanatory commentary in prose on the right-hand page. Most of the figures are in the form of a cross.
Rabanus Maurus dedicated one of his copies to Louis the Pious, King of the Franks and Emperor of the West from 814 to 840, and this dedication and image of the king is preserved in later copies. In the Harley copy, for example, Louis is depicted as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), at the beginning of the work, with a cross, a shield and a halo. The inscriptions place the Emperor under the protection of Christ, while recalling his role as a defender and promoter of the Faith.
Some of the figures are in the form of letters rather than images, as in this one, which includes the words ‘Crux’ (cross), reading downwards, and ‘Salus’ (salvation), reading across. This poem is about angels, and the names of some of them are included in the figured letters. For example, the ‘u’ (shaped as a ‘v’) of Crux is formed from the word ‘arcangeli’ (archangels).
The author included an image of himself as well, portrayed as a kneeling monk below an image of a cross. His identity is made clear by the inclusion of his name ‘Rabanus’ in red letters visible on his face and habit.
Another elegant copy of De Laudibus sancte crucis was made in the abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris around the middle of the 11th century (now Paris, BnF, MS latin 11685). This manuscript was digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.
You can can also find out about some of the other manuscripts made in Arnstein in our previous blogpost about the Arnstein Bible.
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23 September 2021
Legends and stories have always been part of our human experience – tales of terrifying creatures, star-crossed lovers and impossible quests have been adapted and invented by storytellers and bards across cultures and millennia. The Middle Ages was no exception and manuscripts containing stories are among some of the most beautifully illustrated in our collections. A number of these are currently on display in our Treasures Gallery - which is once again open to the public - and are the subject of a new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic by Chantry Westwell, published this week by the British Library.
A love story
One of the most famous literary love stories is between Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and author, and his muse Beatrice. To commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, a magnificent copy of the Divine Comedy is displayed, open to an illumination in the third book, Paradiso, showing Dante and Beatrice floating upwards to heaven. Very little is known about their relationship, but it seems they met only once or twice before Beatrice died aged only 24. In his poem to her, the Vita Nuovo, Dante promises to create a work that will be worth of her memory. He achieves this in the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest poetic works of all time.
Having experienced the torments of hell and the suffering of purgatory, Dante is guided through the realms of heaven by Beatrice, finally reaching the Celestial Rose, where the Holy Trinity is surrounded by the nine orders of angels. Dante looks into the Eternal Light and his soul becomes one with God. To discover more, see our recent blogpost on Dante in our collections.
Stories of famous women
In the display case beside Dante is Christine de Pisan’s ‘Book of the Queen’, a collection of works by one of the few women to make her living from writing in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was produced under her supervision for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. It is open at an illustration of Venus teaching a group of women at the beginning of 'L'Épître Othéa'. This is a letter imagined by Christine de Pisan from the fictional Othéa, personification of wisdom, to the Trojan prince, Hector. Each short epistle is followed by a commentary giving advice to women on how to follow the example of famous characters from history and mythology. A number of episodes from the Trojan legends are illustrated, including this miniature of Circe changing Ulysses and his men into swine. Christine uses this example to encourage her audience to make use of the medical expertise of physicians rather than the charms and dark arts practised by Circe.
Far-fetched accounts of exotic, unknown lands have always captured the popular imagination, and a work of English origin, known as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one of these. The copy on display contains illustrations of encounters with strange and wondrous creatures to be found in faraway places. The ‘author’, Mandeville, probably never existed, and the stories are thought to have been collected from other travellers’ accounts and presented as a real journey. Whatever its origins, this work may have been more popular than The Travels of Marco Polo at one time – it is thought that Christine de Pisan and Leonardo da Vinci owned copies of it.
A tale of magic and mystery from the court of King Arthur
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one handwritten copy, currently on display beside the Mandeville manuscript. In this well-known story, the Green Knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights, a challenge that is taken up by Gawain. This leads him on a quest through the wilderness of Wirrall, where he overcomes dragons, wodewoses, bears and ogres. No spoilers here - the strange outcome of these events will be revealed in a film, The Green Knight, to be released in the UK this weekend (watch this space for a forthcoming blogpost!). The late 14th-century manuscript contains a series of full-page illustrations and three other Middle English poems, Pearl, Cleanness and Patience, believed to be by the same author, about whom nothing more is known.
A lovable rogue
Storytellers have always loved a mischief-maker, an individual who delights in creating mayhem for its own sake, but who sometimes falls victim to his or her own tricks. Animal rogues in traditional folk tales, from Anansi, the spider in West Africa, to the crow in the Indian Mahabharata and the medieval Renard the fox are the precursors of our much-loved Jerry (nemesis of Tom), Bugs Bunny and the Wild Things. Surely the best-known animal character of the Middle Ages is Reynard the Fox, hero of the French Roman de Renart. This beloved rascal was so famous that the French word for fox changed from ‘goupil’ to ‘renard’. A manuscript in French in our collections contains illustrations, including one of the well-known story of Renart and Chanticleer the cockerel, adapted by Chaucer as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Renart distracts the foolish and self-important cockerel by asking him to demonstrate his singing prowess, seizing the opportunity to grasp him by the neck and carry him off as dinner for his family.
Though this manuscript is not on display in Treasures, there is a William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of the tales of Reynard the fox in the section on Printed Books, where Morris adapts the medieval foliate border to create a beautiful opening to the collection of stories in English. The text is a reprint of Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Dutch prose version, Reinaerts Historie.
Discover more medieval stories
Intrigued by medieval stories? A new book, Dragons Heroes Myths and Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, by Chantry Westwell, is published this week by the British Library, and is now available to buy from the Library’s online shop and St Pancras bookshop. It features stories with images from some of the most gorgeous medieval manuscripts in our collections. The stories are divided into 7 sections, including Quests, Love Stories and Epic Battles, each with details of its origins and history and how it was perceived by medieval audiences. Illuminations from British Library manuscripts are beautifully reproduced on almost every page.
But there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, so come and visit our Treasures Gallery at the St Pancras site, which is once again open for visitors and contains a wealth of materials from our collections, in addition to the medieval manuscripts featured here.
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21 July 2021
Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.
Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.
Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.
Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).
Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.
In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.
A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.
A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.
The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).
09 July 2021
Opening the door of a pretty Norman church down a country lane in the Cotswold village of South Newington, I was shocked to be confronted by two rather violent murder scenes painted on the wall. The first is of a man being viciously cut down while he raises his hands in prayer; his head is split in two by a sword, and blood spurts over his forehead. Though the paintings are rather fragmentary and difficult to make out at first, the figure in the red cloak, his hands raised in prayer is unmistakeably Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, an event that caused a great scandal throughout Christendom.
Beside it is another violent scene that has been identified as the execution in 1322 of Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who led a rebellion against King Edward II (r. 1307-1327). He is also shown kneeling while his executioner towers over him, using all his force to chop off his head. Drops of blood spurt from his neck – by one account it took several blows to decapitate him. Both paintings have been dated to the 1330s.
While attempts to canonise Thomas Plantagenet were, not surprisingly, unsuccessful, Thomas Becket was made a saint not long after his martyrdom, and Canterbury became a popular destination of pilgrimage. Two hundred years later, Henry VIII did his utmost to stamp out the cult of Becket and ordered all representations of him to be destroyed. Becket’s face in this painting only survived because it had an image of St George, another popular English saint, painted over it at a later date. It was uncovered and restored in the 20th century.
Had the full scene in the wall painting survived, it may have looked a little like one of the two scenes below. Both are dated to the early part of the 14th century and are in the margins of personal prayerbooks probably made in south-eastern England. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a whole series of more than 20 images from the life and afterlife of St Thomas Becket.
The Taymouth Hours has numerous scenes of the torture and murder of saints across the lower margins. On the other side of the page from Becket is an even more gruesome scene: the martyrdom of St Lawrence, who was burned on a brazier.
A finely painted miniature from the 15th century of the scene in Canterbury Cathedral shows details of Thomas’s ethereal gaze, the grim facial expressions of the attackers and the elaborately decorated backdrop of the sanctuary. This is from a rather small prayer book (about the size of a Kindle), but the digital images allow us to zoom in and see the exquisite details clearly.
As one of the most popular English saints, Becket was frequently depicted alongside other well-known saints. Here in a Psalter from northern England he is shown with two much-venerated female martyrs of the early Church: St Catherine of Alexandria and St Margaret of Antioch.
My encounter with the image of Thomas Becket in the Cotswolds was timely, as the 850th anniversary of his murder is being marked this summer by an exhibition at the British Museum (postponed from 2020), Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint. Included among the objects on display are other British Library manuscripts with scenes from his life and death, featured in our recent blogpost, Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint. There's also more about saints in medieval manuscripts, including Becket, on the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project website.
You can also discover amazing images from British Library manuscripts for yourself using the 'Advanced Search' page in the our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. If you search for ‘Becket’ in the 'Image description' field, twenty-five results are displayed, some from manuscripts in this blogpost. For example, the Queen Mary Psalter (seen above) includes this scene of Thomas Becket being brought into the Lord’s presence by two angels. It is beneath a full-page image of the Trinity in the section containing the Canticles.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
27 June 2021
From a relatively early date in the Latin West, luxury Psalters featured cycles of introductory or prefatory full-page images. Very often these focused on the life of Christ, although other subjects such as the Creation and King David were also featured. It is likely that these cycles of images grew out of the interpretation of the Psalms as a prefiguration of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This concept reflects Jesus’s comment that ‘all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me’ (Luke 24:44).
One large and impressive Psalter features twenty full-page prefatory images. It was probably made in Oxford because the calendar following the miniatures includes a reference to the translation (or reburial) of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, in 1180. The absence of another important event, the translation of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury into a new shrine in 1220, suggests that this manuscript may have been made before that occurred.
In this Psalter each illuminated page contains two scenes that illustrate events from the life of Christ. Sometimes the images include scrolls with biblical quotations that supplement and interpret the paintings, perhaps indicating that the original owner of the book may have been able to read Latin or would have viewed it with someone who could. For example, in the upper register of this image Christ walks on water and St Peter attempts to follow, but he is starting to sink into the sea. The banner proclaims ‘Modice fidei quare dubitasti’ (O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?) (Matthew 14:31).
In the lower register of the same image is the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James, all kneeling below. Christ is enclosed in an almond shape mandorla, which was often used to frame and signify Christ in Majesty. Moses, to his left, is identifiable by the horns on his head. This attribute is based on the account of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai in the Latin Vulgate Bible, which says that ‘he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord’ (Exodus 34:29), where the Hebrew word ḳaran was mis-translated as horned (the word can also mean ‘to radiate’).
Another interesting aspect of the cycle in this manuscript is the use of silver, which unlike many medieval examples has not tarnished to black. This is particularly apparent in the sword and armour of the soldier who raises his sword to murder a young boy in the illustration of the Massacre of the Innocents. The mail of the soldier’s helmet, body armour and greaves (leg armour) is all carefully delineated and the silver retains its sheen.
The vivid images that preface the Psalms thereby enhance the devotional experience of reading and meditating on the Psalms, as well as providing a visual commentary on the biblical text. This beautiful Psalter was digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project and you can find out more about English manuscript illumination on the project website.
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16 June 2021
Vengeful, merciless and brutally violent... yes that’s right, we’re talking about medieval bunnies. Rabbits can often be found innocently frolicking in the decorated borders or illuminations of medieval manuscripts, but sometimes, for reasons unknown, these adorable fluffy creatures turn into stone-cold killers. These darkly humorous images of medieval killer bunnies still strike a chord with modern viewers, always proving a hit on social media and popularised by Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Beast of Caerbannog, ‘the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!’.
While re-cataloguing the Arnstein Passional, made at Arnstein Abbey in Germany around the 1170s, for the Harley cataloguing project, we spotted a particularly early example of killer bunny imagery (could it be the earliest known?). This decorated letter ‘T’ is being used as a gallows on which two rabbits or hares hang a human hunter. His identity is made clear by the hunting horn slung over his shoulder. The rabbits stand on their hindlegs and point with their front paws as if jeering in sinister glee.
This image gives us a clue about why medieval artists showed rabbits behaving so violently. In real life, rabbits and hares are docile prey animals. But in decorated initials and marginalia, medieval artists often depicted ‘the world turned upside down’, where roles are reversed and the impossible becomes the norm. So here, rabbits are violent hunters hellbent on punishing anyone who has committed crimes against rabbit-kind.
Perhaps the most elaborate example of the killer bunny theme appears in the Smithfield Decretals, illuminated in London in the 1340s. This manuscript contains multiple series of marginal scenes in which stories unfold over consecutive pages like a comic strip. In this series of scenes, we see how a group of giant beefy rabbits get their gruesome revenge on a hunter. First a rabbit archer shoots the hunter in the back, then the rabbits tie him up and haul him before a rabbit judge to be tried. After a guilty verdict is delivered, the ruthless rabbits drag the hunter away and behead him.
Not content with inflicting punishment on the hunter, the fluffy ruffians then set their sights on a hound. Hounds were widely used for hunting rabbits and hares, making them prime targets for bunny vengeance. In a series of scenes mirroring the previous ones, the rabbits are shown shooting the hound with arrows, tying him up, trying him at rabbit court, carting him away and then hanging him.
Another rabbit goes hunting for hounds in this Book of Hours made in England in the 1320s. On one page the rabbit sets out with a full quiver of arrows, blowing on a hunting horn. On the other side of the page he returns triumphant with his arrows used up and a small hound strung up on the end of his bow.
Some rather more chivalrous rabbits engage in knightly combat with hounds in the margins of the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, made in Metz in France between 1302 and 1303. Here they take up lances, swords and shields and do battle. In one instance a bunny rides on the back of a snail while the opposing hound rides on the back of a bunny who looks like he’s just noticed with some puzzlement that he’s fighting on the wrong side.
But the rabbits don’t stop at conquering their traditional foes. Having got a taste for warfare, they are ready to take on any adversary. Like the Beast of Caerbannog, these savage rodents could strike fear into the heart of even the bravest knight.
They rampage through the manuscript margins, wielding axes and taking on anyone unfortunate enough to cross them.
Given the murderous reputation of medieval rabbits, the demonic expression on the face of this bunny baker raises alarming questions about the nature of his baked goods. Surely those aren’t human pies... are they?
Luckily, unlike their counterparts in medieval marginalia, 21st-century rabbits are sweet and harmless. But these medieval images remind us to always treat rabbits with respect – you never know when they might decide it’s time to strike back!
For more medieval rabbits, check out our previous blogpost on Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre. If you’d like to read more about the strange world of medieval marginalia, take a look at past blogposts such as Ludicrous figures in the margin, 'Virile, if somewhat irresponsible' design, and the ever-popular Knight v Snail.
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